Issue Reporting: A Woman Who Beds Down With a Rifle

SASABE, Ariz.— “Someone’s crossed here since you drove up,” Melissa Owen says to me, pointing at the dirt on the road to her ranch. There are five different sets of tracks over my truck’s tire tracks, and I just drove up an hour ago. Hiking boot prints, street shoes prints, and a sneaker print where the toes make a deep curved bowl in the soil—just four and a half miles north of the border and someone is already limping.

The tracks are, of course, all headed north. The mojados, the border-wide derisive term for border crossers, have made their first appearance of the morning on Owen’s Sierra Vista ranch, and she’s none too happy about this. When you live this close to the border, this sort of thing happens every day, but it doesn’t mean that you ever get used to it.

“I can’t afford to be compassionate,” Owen tells me as we walk back to her house after seeing the tracks. “I’m out here alone most of the time, and I can’t have word get around that there’s a lady at the Sierra Vista Ranch who will give you water or a ride to town. I want the word to get out that there’s a mean old bitch here who will call the Border Patrol and fill you with buckshot.”

Owen has lived in Sasabe for 10 years and has owned the ranch for three. She has two college degrees and reasonable politics, but that only goes so far when people walk through your property night after night. (“I’d like George and Laura Bush and their daughters to spend a few nights on my ranch all alone. We’ll see what happens to border security then.”) Something happened to her, the way it’s happened along the rest of the border. There’s a rancher in the area who used to leave a hose out for migrants to drink from as they passed through. But then his ranch started getting trashed, and the storage sheds full of tools and ranch supplies started getting broken into and looted. And migrants would leave the water on, a cardinal sin in southern Arizona, where most wells have to be drilled to 400 feet before hitting water. He took away the hose. And then he cut the spigot off the standpipe before welding over the top. No water for anyone, now.

“I used to try to be compassionate and just tell people to take off their shoes and sit quietly until the Border Patrol arrived,” a ranger told me once. “I’d give them food and water. Then some people would throw it in my face. They’d rest for an hour, have some food and water and get to feeling better. So, they’d try and make a run for it. Now I only give them water if they’re dying.”

It didn’t used to be this way. Migration has always been tacitly condoned down here, or it was until a few years ago. That’s when the numbers got huge after the Border Patrol started intensive enforcement in cities and pushed the immigration into the rural areas. The change in Owen is the change on the border. She used to work out on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and would run into groups of two or three or four men. They’d introduce themselves and say what ranch they were going to work on, chat for a few minutes, and go. Not so much anymore. Generally speaking, the groups are larger, the average demographic has moved from men in their 30s and 40s doing local work on ranches to men and women in their late teens or early 20s making a run for a better life. And there’s a lot of aggression. A cowboy at one of the ranches here walked out of his front door one morning to see five immigrants sitting in lawn chairs in his front yard, waiting for someone to come out. “Take us to Phoenix,” they demanded. The ranch hand walked back inside, called the Border Patrol, and grabbed his rifle, then he stood out on his porch watching the migrants sitting in his lawn chairs. They were insolent, he told his neighbors, just sat with their arms crossed and glared at him.

One of the Altar Valley ranchers built an 8-foot-high, razor-wire-topped security fence around his entire compound because of border crossers. (Owen is getting one installed, too.) But one night, the rancher, who is Hispanic, felt bad for the immigrants camped in the wash behind his home. It was cold out. He went outside and said, “I’ll give you some water and call the Border Patrol.” A young man in the group stood up and started yelling at him, giving him the finger, telling him to come on down there from behind the fence. The rancher went back in and called the Border Patrol. No water for anyone now.

Maybe these are just stories or border myths, but each time another story gets told, it hardens the vein of compassion a little more.

“I think we’re in the stage now where we’re all scaring each other,” Owen said. “We all have scary stories, and we call and say, ‘Did you hear about this?’ ”

Owen and I are sitting in her yard, looking out at the Altar Valley. It’s a picture-perfect day with intense blue skies and a few high cirrus clouds and the mountain ranges that border the valley look close enough to touch. It’s semi-arid grassland, and in front us is nothing but miles of waist-high grass that’s cured out to the color of white gold. I ask Owen what her nights are like.

“I haven’t slept a full night since I moved here. I think I’m up every hour.”

“Then why do you stay?”

“Look at this,” she says, gesturing. “This is paradise. It’s the place my husband and I spent our lives looking for.” There’s a pause. “If the dogs bark, it might be a skunk or a deer a mile away—they can smell the scent—or it could be five men with AK-47s crawling up on the house. If the dogs keep barking, I grab my rifle, which is in a closet steps from my bed.”

She has used the rifle before. The time a group of 10 or so men were coming up her ranch road demanding a ride to Phoenix. They wouldn’t stop, so she called the Border Patrol and put a shot over their heads. The men scattered into the arms of the BP, coming up the road responding to Owen’s call.

“It’s all bad dreams and rumors,” Owen says. “And it happens at night.”

I watch a pair of A-10 attack planes out of an Air Force base in Tucson play tag with one another over a nearby mountain range. I’m struck by the situation: I’m sitting next to a woman who’s gotten mean and beds down with a rifle because she feels so helpless, when 10 miles away, $10 million airplanes are demonstrating the ingenuity and might of the U.S. government.
Dec. 9, 2006